McALLEN — Data from last year showed an achievement South Texas had never before reached in education, but there was little, if any, news about it, said Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Superintendent Daniel King.
The moment was a singular example of a trend experts point to in the Rio Grande Valley, but some said it hasn’t been highlighted much outside education circles. Despite its challenges, or perhaps because of its challenges, the region has become a place where innovative education models are fostered.
Some examples include McAllen and IDEA, which have strong technology components, to PSJA, which has juggled several new concepts.
But the key question to be proved over time: Do they work?
“I would definitely say that the Valley has been an incubator of innovation that is now being spread not only throughout the Valley, but across the state and the nation,” said Chris Coxon, Educate Texas chief program officer.
Educate Texas, a partnership of public and private entities eyeing inventive solutions to problems in education mostly at the high school and college level, counts the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as well as the Michael & Susan Dell foundation among its ranks.
It also has Valley-based staff — something Coxon said was a deliberate choice in that Educate Texas wanted to focus on key areas in the state where it seemed possible solutions were being drummed up.
“For us, the Valley was one of those places,” he said, going on to mention work in Cameron and Hidalgo counties, such as science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — campuses in Lyford, and strong engineering programs in Progreso.
However, he said it’s clear the leaders here don’t think of their education strategies as a “magic bullet.”
Coxon added that the group’s RGV Focus Collective Impact initiative aims to repurpose what is sometimes characterized as the Valley’s deficits — a large, Spanish-only-speaking population and a mostly native population. Instead, he said, they are assets that tout bi-literacy and a bi-cultural population.
For King, the dividends have started to manifest, and he expects in the next three to five years there will be much more apparent.
The moment with little fanfare that he cited was when data revealed that for the first time ever, the dropout rate in the South Texas region was on par with the state and not substantially higher — especially when compared to several years ago.
Additionally, the four-year graduation rate here last year substantially closed the gap between South Texas and the rest of the state, he said. The South Texas region, for the purposes of this data, covers the several counties under the Region One Education Service Center based in Edinburg.
According to King, the region and state longitudinal dropout rate in 2012 hovered at 6.2 percent to 6.3 percent, while the four-year graduation rate for the region closed a gap behind the state that used to be 6 percent in 2006 to less than 2 percent in 2012.
Texas Education Agency data show in 2012 the state’s four-year graduation rate was 87.7 percent.
BetterIDEA & TLC3
In the IDEA Public Schools charter district and McAllen district, one finds similar yet different innovations involving technology. Both could be considered part of what seems to be an education buzzword of the day: blended learning.
Three years ago, the charter district rolled out the BetterIDEA instructional strategy, while McAllen began to distribute iPads in February 2012 as part of its TLC3 initiative, which stands for Transforming Learning in the Classroom, Campus and Community. Other districts — such as Weslaco, Mission and PSJA — have also adopted so-called 1-to-1 initiatives encouraging use of mobile devices.
Blended learning, according to one technical definition, is when a portion of time that students spend learning is delivered through online instruction and content, providing the learner control of aspects such as path or pace.
Neither district is without its critics, though. Some have called out IDEA on its college prep statistics, while others have questioned the expense of iPads and the potential lack of academic direction with the devices in McAllen.
The approach of each district is also significantly different.
IDEA is using “smart” software to guide students, while McAllen is more hands-off.
Pablo Mejia, IDEA’s director of individualized learning, explained BetterIDEA aimed to personalize learning for elementary school students and has since spread to more than half of its middle schools. It uses a mix of Accelerated Reader zones, where students select books based on their reading levels averaging 25 minutes of time there, and rotate to an iLearning Hotspot — essentially a large computer lab stocked with software carefully selected by the district for math learning.
The program allows students to go at their own paces and detects if they need to work on previous lessons based on the answers they get wrong. Mejia said the district has grappled with teaching students who are at different levels in the same classroom and meeting state objectives. It’s a difficult task for teachers, who end up instructing to the middle, and that’s why iLearning Hotspots help, he said.
“It’s been a bit of a fine balance to get that right,” Mejia said.
According to him, after BetterIDEA, some 79 percent of the district’s students averaged 85 percent or higher on Accelerated Reader quizzes last year, read an average of 63 books per student and averaged 54 hours of time using the online math software. All of this is in addition to classroom instruction time.
But some say it’s tough to quantify and measure student achievement while connecting the technology, as Carmen Garza, McAllen school district director for instructional technology, can attest.
“The iPad is just a tool, so you can’t really measure it,” Garza said. “There’s just so many variables. It’s really hard, but I would venture to say that if you surveyed the teachers they would overwhelmingly say that they have seen progress in achievement through the use of the iPad.”
Garza said McAllen has taken the approach of letting students choose applications to solve problems and be creative, buying a suite that includes GarageBand and iMovie — sound and video editing programs, respectively.
“We don’t have a canned product that we utilize for math or science or reading,” she said.
Garza said the district is investigating using “smart” software, but hasn’t bought any at the moment, though that’s not because of the initial $20 million already spent on the iPads.
She said she’s watched the heavily criticized rollout of the Los Angeles Unified School District in California, the second-largest district in the nation. The snags it has hit, such as students bypassing security measures to visit sites like YouTube, led to a board meeting scheduled for this week to review the $1 billion project.
For a short time, McAllen was the largest district in the nation with such a program. Garza said they went through the same growing pains, like dealing with damage to the devices, which cost several hundred dollars each.
Referencing some of the California district’s problems, Garza said that “they’re just bigger, so it seems like it’s bigger, but it’s completely normal for that to happen.”
She also said McAllen never tried to lock down its devices like those in California.
“We knew that was impossible,” she said.
Garza said instead, the district has spent its time and resources fostering “good digital citizens” and showing parents how to monitor their children.
“We already know anybody can bypass any of our filters. It’s a given,” Garza said, though she claimed there have been no such instances of which the district is aware.
Garza said the biggest challenge has actually been the frustration of some parents as they’ve been required to go online for most everything, from making payments to enrollment and use multiple logins and passwords.
‘PERFECT EXPERIMENTAL LABORATORY’
A well-known fact: The Valley has long had lower-than-average income and educational attainment levels, Superintendent King noted.
“I think here in the Valley, there’s been an understanding in the last couple decades in particular that that’s not OK,” he said. “You could say we’re starting to cash in some of the early dividends.”
King said society’s expectations of public schools have increased — such as ensuring the majority of students are college ready — and demographics for the state and nation are beginning to reflect the Valley’s predominantly Hispanic population.
He said that it’s with this, and the added challenge of facing issues such as poverty with many native educational leaders, that the region has become the “perfect experimental laboratory.”
Among the prominent initiatives he’s close to, King said the growth of the early college high school model has blossomed as a way to rethink public school, connecting high school and college by offering dual enrollment. It began with him years ago in the Hidalgo school district, when he was its superintendent, and moved with him to PSJA.
Recently, the La Villa and Sharyland school districts began to apply to open their own ECHS campuses.
PSJA also has a dropout-recovery initiative. Its cornerstone is the College, Career & Technology Academy, which targets 18- to 26-year-old students and offers dual enrollment through partnerships with community college and technical schools.
King said since its inception in 2007 some 1,087 students have graduated from the campus and about 5,000 Valley students have graduated from similar campuses in different districts.
PSJA also has a dual language program that extends through a student’s senior year, but King said other districts have their own claims to fame — for instance, Edinburg, he said, is a leading producer of Advanced Placement scholars.
“There’s schools up and down the Valley that really are kind of breaking new ground and finding different and new ways to move our students to success,” he said.
Meanwhile, he said that increasingly, K-12 and higher education are working together and ending a long-time blame game.
“We’re moving from not talking to each other to becoming completely integrated,” he said.
What’s happening in the Valley isn’t a gimmick, King said, and that’s apparent in the data.
Another example, he said, is that it no longer takes three to four years for enrollment to recover after the University of Texas-Pan American raises its admission standards, and instead, its enrollment has grown.